Three deaths within 24 hours last week truly knocked me off-kilter. I was asking why since they still had so much to give.
Two of the three, Walter Dellinger of Chapel Hill and P.J. O’Rourke of New Hampshire, I did not know, but felt like I did through their writings and public conversations. The third is Kathy Cleaton, my friend who with her late husband, Russ, founded and ran The Swedish Garage, a Saab/Mini repair shop in Charlotte where I’ve taken my Saabs for 25 years.
Dellinger, who died Feb. 16 at age 80, was a personal hero. He was born and raised in my hometown of the past 40 years (Charlotte) and lived and died in the town where I was born and raised (Chapel Hill). He made his mark as an acclaimed constitutional law professor and scholar (including 20 years at Duke Law School) and an advocate for a variety of liberal causes – becoming a moral voice as one of President Bill Clinton’s top legal advisors.
He wrote and spoke as a Southern liberal, an odd breed of which I consider myself a part. His prolific opinion writings on a range of issues such as civil, reproductive and gay rights (he was for them), gun control (it too) and physician-assisted suicide (against it) simply hit a tone of decency and good reason.
He was a man of high-minded intellect, and there are plenty of stories in Chapel Hill about how he often hung out with locals of differing political stripes, notably at the lunch counter at Sutton’s Drug Store on East Franklin Street.
O’Rourke, who died Feb. 15 at 74, was a proud Republican journalist/satirist. He was a voice from the right who wrote with a proper dose of cynicism and snark in a political world that seems to have lost its sense of humor. He didn’t reserve his shots for just Democrats, once writing: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then get elected and prove it.”
As a fledgling writer, looking for models to emulate, I looked to O’Rourke as one. In the early days, I read anything with his byline that I could find in the pages of Rolling Stone and followed him through a spectrum of publications, books and political talk shows as he took his act on the road.
But it was the news of Kathy Cleaton’s death that really delivered the gut-punch. She was not famous (except among local Saab lovers), but she, too, had a voice, a soothing and supportive one especially for friends who’d hit a rough patch. I saw her just two weeks ago, when I took one of my Saabs to her shop to check on a warning light.
She seemed fine, though clearly still missing her beloved Russ, who died of cancer in late 2019.
They grew up in Thornwood, N.Y., a solidly middle class, 1.1-square-mile hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant in central Westchester County, a half-hour drive from New York City, according to a 2019 New York Times profile. It’s a community of a few thousand, where you knew your neighbors – where Russ and Kathy learned the value of loyalty and friendship.
They became high school sweethearts at Westlake High, and were separated only by death. Marrying in 1975, they moved around the country, first as a military couple while Russ was in the Navy, then to Ohio with two children where they sailed on Lake Erie and fell in love with Saabs. Next they went to Myrtle Beach to open a catamaran business, finally landing in Charlotte in 1985.
They started The Swedish Garage in 1997, first in a one-room, one-lift building near uptown Charlotte, moving around the city until they bought the garage’s current four-lift home on Remount Road in 2006.
“They spent many years running the business and making friends along the way,” their children, son Jamie (who now runs the shop) and daughter Jenny, wrote in Kathy’s obituary. They treated customers like family, Kathy playing hostess and Russ showing his true talent of ably explaining the inner-workings of a Saab engine – often accompanied by sound effects – and cushioning the blow of an expensive fix. As Russ battled cancer, I always admired the care Kathy gave him.
“She was happy to support anything Russ wanted to do and she was always by his side,” their children wrote. She was “a wife to one, a mother to two and a friend to everyone she ever met.”
Both were devoted supporters of the previous president – true “Trumpies.” We had fun (sometimes not) sparring over politics and our differences. “Dave, I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong,” Russ was fond of saying.
It never divided us – in this divisive world a lesson to be learned as Dellinger and O’Rourke often preached. The last time I saw Kathy, I reminded her of my last conversation with Russ. He was near the end.
Me: “Russ, we came from different worlds and have been at opposite ends of the political spectrum. But it didn’t matter.”
Russ, his voice weak: “Dave, that’s the way it should be. Thanks for being my friend.”
Kathy smiled, then paused to collect her thoughts: “Yep,” she said, “that’s the way it should be.”
Early Feb. 15, she died in her sleep. She was only 64.
David Perlmutt was an Observer reporter for 35 years.